Dear Evan: I found myself in a mind-numbingly boring two-day conference with 24 accountants (well, now that I think about it, with 24 accountants in the room, I guess I got off pretty light if it was only mind-numbingly boring) and few oddities came to mind that might interest you: From whence comes the expression "to boggle" (as in "my mind boggles" --which it did)? Is "mush you huskies" a perverse anglicization of an Inuit word for "giddyup"? Why do people only contribute their "two cents worth" when making a contribution to conversation or debate? Inflation aside, I don't think two cents ever really amounted to much purchasing power. Yours in verbosity -- Michael Raynor, via the Internet.
Twenty-four accountants, eh? That's a lot of wingtips. My own accountant, actually, is not boring at all -- he writes mystery novels on the side (starring a fearless crusading accountant, naturally). I've never actually read one of his books, but I've often wondered whether the time I might spend reading it would be tax deductible. I must remember to ask next time I'm audited.
To answer your first question first ("mush" and "two cents worth" will have to wait for another day), the sense of "boggle" found in the phrase "the mind boggles" is not the original meaning of the word, and therein lies the key to its origin. You meant that sitting for two days in a room with 24 accountants "overwhelmed" or "disoriented" you -- and, of course, bored you to tears. But the original meaning of "boggle" was "to startle, scare or alarm" -- not at all a logical reaction to a roomful of accountants, unless they work for the IRS.
"Boggle" in the sense of "scare" first appeared in English around 1598, and is thought to have come from a Scottish word, "bogill," meaning "goblin." Another descendant of "bogill" turns out to be "bogy" (or "bogey"), as in the "bogey-man" who used to hide beneath all our beds when we were young. And now we know what the bogey-man was doing under our beds, don't we? Auditing the dust bunnies, of course.
Two Cents Plain In a letter received a few days ago, our correspondent Michael Raynor reported that he had spent the better part of two days at a conference with twenty-four accountants, and had put his time to good use by dreaming up questions for this column. On the off chance that I might somehow curry favor with some accountants and thus parlay my answers into a tax deduction, today I tackle another of Mr. Raynor's queries. "Why do people only contribute their 'two cents worth' when making a contribution to conversation or debate?", Mr. Raynor wonders, "Inflation aside, I don't think two cents ever really amounted to much purchasing power."
Speaking as someone who grew up a few short blocks from a first-rate penny- candy emporium, I beg to differ -- two cents per day, applied in the form of liquorice whips and gumballs, can buy you a lifetime of dental adventure.
In any case, the whole point of "my two cents worth," which originated in the late 19th century, is that it is a faux-modest, self-deprecating tactic used to disarm your audience before you announce your opinion. This is especially important in the event that your opinion turns out to be idiotic, in which case you can always claim that you warned your listeners in advance that your opinion was next to worthless. The phrase has long since become a cliche, and its use can be especially grating when the person announcing the arrival of his "two cents worth" is a doctor or lawyer (or a dentist, come to think of it) charging you two hundred dollars an hour. Don't get me started.
"Two cents" or "two-center" has been a slang synonym for "very cheap" since the middle of the 19th century, when the cheapest cigar available was literally a "two- center." The U.S. Treasury Department actually issued a two-cent coin in 1864, which was, incidentally, the first U.S. coin to bear the motto "In God We Trust." The government, evidently feeling frisky in a monetary sort of way, also issued coins in three-cent and twenty-cent denominations during the same period.
Dear Evan: There was an interesting word in the Sunday New York Times recently in a story about the budget battle. The word was "lagniappe" and I wonder if its use in the story in the business section was correct, since apparently the word means a sort of extra gift given by a seller to a buyer, especially in Louisiana. The writer seemed to be using it to describe the fact that not everyone -- such as the poor -- would suffer under the GOP proposal and some would receive a "lagniappe." Can you enlighten me further about the word, its derivation and proper use? -- George Bower, via the Internet.
I must admit that I'm not terribly well-informed on the budget battles currently raging betwixt the President and Congress. I may be operating at a disadvantage in this regard, however, because I've always had great difficulty in telling politicians apart (an embarrassing disability, which I believe to be the reason I am so rarely invited to state dinners). In any case, I am alarmed at the news that the rich may benefit from the distress of the poor. Surely there must be some mistake in the plan, perhaps a subtle typographical error? Such a result could not possibly be deliberate.
But you are bang on the mark, you'll be glad to hear, with your definition of "lagniappe" (pronounced "lan-YAP"), right down to its Louisiana origin. It comes from a Louisiana French (or Creole) word, itself derived from the Spanish "la napa," or "the gift." Originally it meant a small token of appreciation traditionally given by a New Orleans merchant to his faithful customers -- an extra cookie, a free lunch, or the like. Lagniappes came to national attention during the reign (and it was indeed a "reign") of Louisiana Governor Huey Long, who expanded the concept of "lagniappe" to include political favors and routine small-scale official corruption.
Today we use "lagniappe" to mean any sort of small gift, good fortune or gratuity, especially one that is unexpected. Such as a tax break for rich people, for example -- who would ever have predicted that?
We're All Peppers on This Bus
Dear Evan: I am trying to find the origin of the word "pep" as in "pep rally" or "pep up." So far I found the word was added to the dictionary in 1912. My friend says that pep is derived from the Dr. Pepper cola product and is slang from the ad campaign that said Dr. Pepper was the "Pepper Upper"? Can you help? Am I on the right track? Thank you. -- Ray, via the Internet
Oh no, it is I who should thank you! Because of your letter, I now have that wonderful old "He's a Pepper, She's a Pepper" advertising jingle running through my head. Gosh, it's been years since that little ditty visited me last. And after all, it's been so dreadfully quiet in my head lately, ever since I managed to purge my cranial vault of the "Flintstones" theme that had been echoing there since last Spring. Nothing like some nice, peppy background music to make your mental processes just whiz along, I always say. Well, there's that word "pep" again (hiding in "peppy" right up yonder), so let's all turn down the volume in our heads and get to work.
I spend so much of my time qualifying my answers to readers' questions ("the origin of 'wombat' is a bit uncertain") that it's a pleasure to be able for once to give a definite, I'm-absolutely-positive, answer to your question. "Pep" comes from (the envelope please) ... "pepper." Not "Doctor Pepper," not "pepper-upper," just plain old "pepper," as in "salt and pepper." All your other "pep"-words and phrases -- "pep- rally," "pep up," and even the name "Doctor Pepper" -- are based on the use of "pepper" to mean "energy, vim, vigor, spirit or forcefulness." The first recorded use of "pep" as an abbreviation of "pepper" was, as you note, in 1912, though the metaphorical use of the whole word "pepper" to mean the same thing is recorded back in 1847.
And now, before I go, I've got a question of my own. Here, let me sing it for you: "I'm a pepper, he's a pepper, she's a pepper -- are you a pepper too?"
Dutch 'n Gry
It occurred to me recently that I rarely report on the reactions of my readers to this column, so today I thought I'd feature two readers' comments on recent columns.
Following up on a column I wrote detailing the curious persistence of anti-Dutch slurs in English ("Dutch Act" (suicide), "Dutch Treat" (each person pays his or her own way), etc.), Bob Kohout wrote:
"Growing up in SW Connecticut between the Connecticut and Hudson Valleys, I always associated the Dutch terms to the conflict of the earliest settlers. The Dutch were the original traders and homesteaders in both valleys. They were then squeezed and coerced back to Europe. As a matter of fact, thunder was explained to us kids as Henry Hudson's men bowling in the sky. Perhaps the Dutch comments started in Europe but were maintained and accelerated in the colonies. What do you think?"
I think you have hit on a good explanation of why these phrases persist in the U.S. By the way, I heard the same explanation of thunder as a child, and it frightened the wits out of me.
Regarding my recent search for the third word in English said to end in "gry" (it turned out to be "aggry," along with "hungry" and "angry"), Stephen Paff of Pittsburgh reminded me that "there is another word which ends in 'gry.' It also begins with the letters 'gry,' and has an 'r' in the middle. That word, of course, is 'gry,' which means a tenth part of a whole."
Well, yes, there's that.
But note: see this essay for the final answer to "gry".
Mr. Paff then poses his own puzzle: "I have been looking for words which use 'w' as a vowel. So far, I have come up with only two: 'cwm' and 'crwth.' Do you know of any more?"
Not offhand, but I'm sure someone out there in reader-land will. Both words you mention are Welsh in origin ("crwth" is an obsolete musical instrument of the violin family, and "cwm" means "valley" or "hollow"), and Welsh does use "w" as a vowel, so I think the trick will be finding other Welsh words adopted into English.
Stir Until Crazy
Dear Evan: We are curious about the origins of the phrase "stir crazy." Can you shed any light on this? -- Christopher Davies, via the Internet.
Curious, eh? Well, I ain't no stoolie, so you didn't hear it from me, understand, but "stir crazy" is one of the oldest examples of prison slang in English, and your question opens a very interesting window into the lore and lingo of the, shall we say, legally-challenged?
"Stir crazy," which dates to about 1925, is just one of a whole range of slang terms based on "stir," which has been a general term for "prison" among cons since the middle of the 19th century. "Stir-crazy" is actually a variant of an older term, "stir bugs," used to describe a prisoner who became mentally unbalanced because of prolonged incarceration. "Stir-daffy" and "stir-goofy" were also popular ways to describe the effects of the mind-numbing boredom of prison life. In contrast, a "stir- hustler" who was "stir-wise" had mastered the art of surviving a long sentence, and was unlikely to fall victim to "stir-belly," the nervous indigestion commonly caused by tension and fear in prison. One of the best guides to prison slang, by the way, is a remarkable book titled "A Dictionary of American Underworld Lingo" (Twayne Publishers, 1950) now, sadly, out of print, but worth a search of your local used-book shop. What makes this dictionary unique is that it was compiled by genuine experts in the field -- two convicts and a prison chaplain -- and actually written inside a major state prison in the 1940s.
As to the ultimate origin of "stir" as a synonym for prison, it is probably based on the Romany, or Gypsy, word "stariben," often shortened to "star," meaning "prison." Gypsies were active in the criminal underworld of 19th century Cockney London, and several Romany-based slang words (including "posh," meaning "money") were adopted by the native English underworld. So now you know the skinny on "stir- crazy," but remember -- youse didn't hear it from me, ok?
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